Any romantic notion I might have had of comparing myself to Lawrence dashing among the dunes of Arabia was rapidly fading as the spongy ridge of sand leading to Star Dune (750 feet) at Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve became steeper. Much steeper. You probably know how it is to walk on a soft, sandy beach. Just imagine doing it on a beach tilted up at an alarming angle – somewhat like a staircase.
My experience made it clear why park rangers harp at visitors to wear a wide-brim hat, sunscreen and to carry plenty of water. Temperatures were moderate during my early-morning hike – but the dune surface routinely reaches 140?F on summer afternoons.
Embraced by the towering, snow-capped Sangre de Cristo Mountains, which rise to nearly 14,000 feet, these 30 square miles of shifting sand comprise the country’s tallest inland dunes. The views from taller dunes of the mountains and the sprawling San Luis Valley to the west shaped the most memorable moments of my three-day tour along southern Colorado’s enchanting Los Caminos Antiguos Scenic Byway.
That’s Spanish for “The Ancient Roads” – a network of trails carved out by conquistadors and missionaries that marked the northernmost reach of 16th-century Spanish territorial expansion. These ancient roads live on today as modern paved highways that lead you in the footsteps of not just Spanish explorers and Mexican settlers but Apaches, Utes and Navajos; soldiers, miners and ranchers; plus a host of historical Western figures such as Zebulon Pike, Kit Carson and John C. Fremont. While the scenery is spectacular, few regions of the American Southwest can top the San Luis Valley for a trip into history.
Often called the “Cradle of Colorado,” the San Luis Valley stretches roughly 150 miles through south-central Colorado, defined by the Sangre de Cristos to the east and the San Juan Mountains to the west. With base altitudes well above 7,000 feet, the valley is technically a high desert but its fertile floor is underlain by shallow aquifers that form marshlands, springs and lakes. Early American Indian and Hispanic settlers found the valley ideal for cultivation and its scattered wetlands have long been home to a wide variety of birds – waterfowl, waders and raptors prominent among them. The valley is a popular rest stop each spring and fall for thousands of migrating sandhill cranes and Canada geese.
For a sampling of Los Caminos Antiguos attractions, my wife, Jan, and I followed a 129-mile semicircle north and east from the route’s southern starting point at Cumbres Pass, on the Colorado/New Mexico border, to its terminus in Alamosa.
Our trip originated from our home in New Mexico, where we loaded up our nimble Class C Winnie Vista and headed north to the mountain village of Chama. We couldn’t help but notice the hubbub of activity around the train station there – as the Cumbres and Toltec Scenic Railroad crew prepared the antique steam-driven tourist train for its daily 64-mile narrow gauge run, via Cumbres Pass, to Antonito, Colorado. This is one of the country’s great railroad trips, so you might consider adding an extra day to your itinerary to allow time for it. The railroad provides a motorcoach return to either Chama or Antonito for those making the day trip, or you can do a half-day/half-way run to the water station and depot at Osier, Colorado, returning on the train to your station of origin. We shadowed the train, pulled by its huffing, smoke-puffing 1880s locomotive, for a short distance as we headed up State Highway 17 toward Antonito.
There’s a similarly exciting scene when the train arrives in Antonito, so make it a point to take in this nostalgic bit of Americana even if you don’t climb aboard.
We strolled Antonito’s main drag to admire a series of historical murals decorating the facades of some of the town’s Victorian-era buildings and then enjoyed lunch at a sidewalk cafÃ© before continuing our byway tour.
Following U.S. Highway 285 north to the village of Conejos, we stopped for a look at Our Lady of Guadalupe Church, a lovely old mission church that’s home to the oldest Catholic parish in Colorado. Turning east on State Highway 142 at Romeo, we continued for a few miles to Manassa, home to the legendary heavyweight boxing champion, Jack Dempsey. Known as the “Manassa Mauler,” Dempsey is memorialized with a bronze statue outside the modest cabin where he was born and which now houses the Jack Dempsey Museum. Sports fans will enjoy perusing the museum’s collection of memorabilia relating to the slugger’s illustrious career, during which he held the world heavyweight title from 1919-1926.
About a dozen miles east of Manassa we came to the Rio Grande and the scene of the so-called Vargas Crossing. As the story goes, back in 1694, Don Diego de Vargas, governor-general of New Mexico, led a band of Spanish soldiers north into the San Luis Valley to escape a Pueblo Indian uprising. The Spaniards crossed the river at a point near the current Highway 142 bridge. In pioneer times this became the site of the heavily used Costilla Ferry.
Continuing eastward, we soon found ourselves in the Hispanic heartland of southern Colorado and the state’s oldest town, San Luis, founded by Mexican settlers in 1851. There’s not much to the town itself – a cluster of wooden and adobe houses and stores (including Colorado’s oldest grocery) around a dusty square – but it is the site of perhaps the most important cultural attraction along the byway route. High atop a mesa overlooking San Luis is the Shrine of the Stations of the Cross.
A series of powerful bronze sculptures by Huberto Maestas are set along a half-mile path that ascends the mesa, depicting the stations of the cross from Jesus’ journey up Cavalry Hill. Atop the mesa sits the exquisite little Capilla de Todos los Santos (All Saints Chapel) – in a setting strikingly reminiscent of Spain’s Andalusia countryside. The shrine is a prime example of Christian devotional art found in Hispanic settlements throughout the southern part of the valley.
Northbound now on Highway 159, our next stop was Fort Garland, a partially re-created 1858 adobe garrison once commanded by Kit Carson. Now a museum, the fort is filled with items of the time, including firearms, uniforms and American Indian artifacts. Visitors can explore the garrison individually or join a 30-minute docent-guided tour.
Approaching the northernmost reaches of Los Caminos Antiguos on State Highway 150, we paused to watch wranglers from historic Zapata Ranch ride herd on some cattle right beside the highway. Stopping in later at ranch headquarters, we learned that this 103,000-acre spread is both in the National Register of Historic Places and a property of the Nature Conservancy. It remains a working ranch but offers 15 guest rooms in three buildings, including the main lodge and bunkhouse. Guests can take part in a variety of outdoor/nature programs. Hiking trails and horse-drawn wagons lead visitors out to view the bison, elk, antelope, coyote and migrating waterfowl that coexist here in what has been described as the “Rocky Mountain Serengeti.”
Not far from the ranch a short but steep trail leads up along Zapata Creek to Zapata Falls, an impressive natural cataract embraced by pinyon-juniper forest. A picnic area affords panoramic views of the valley floor and the nearby sand dunes.
Situated just five miles north of the ranch, Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve was our final stop of the day as we checked in for a two-night stay at Great Sand Dunes Oasis campground, open April to October. This is a clean, well-managed full-service commercial park – though it is a bit small with just 20 full-hookup RV sites – just outside the national park entrance. (Pinyon Flats Campground, located inside the park, has RV spaces but no hookups.)
The next morning I made my death-defying dune climb while Jan wisely stayed behind to dawdle in Medano Creek, an amazing stream made up of snow melt from surrounding mountains that flows along the base of the dunes during spring and early summer months. Dining that evening at the Oasis Campground restaurant we made our key culinary discovery of the trip. While the burgers were quite good, it was the homemade coconut cream pie of local celebrity baker Diane Vittoria (aka “Pie Lady”) that really made the meal. We were lucky to get any of it at all as the pie rack gets picked clean every day.
We wished for another slice of Diane’s pie as we were finishing up a picnic lunch the next day at San Luis Lakes State Park, located about 15 miles west of the national park on Six Mile Lane. We drove to this network of marshy lakes for some bird-watching but spotted only a few resident ducks and waders. Summertime provides the best opportunity to observe shorebirds, and the big fly-ins – featuring sandhill cranes and Canada geese – happen in early spring and fall. Still, it was worthwhile to see the park and check out its excellent picnic and campground facilities. The park’s Mosca Campground comes with electric hookups, and rates run about $18 per night with an additional $6 entry fee per vehicle.
Our final day of byway touring led us back along Six Mile Lane to Mosca where we turned south on State Highway 17 for the short drive to Alamosa. With a population just shy of 10,000, Alamosa is the largest city on the byway. It’s a lively place at the center of a large ranching and farming community and home as well to Adams State College. We did a bit of window-shopping to stretch our legs then tackled some green chiles rellenos at Cavillo’s on Main Street.
Before heading home we drove out U.S. Highway 160 a few miles southeast of town to have a look at Alamosa National Wildlife Refuge. One of three national wildlife refuges in the San Luis Valley, this one protects 11,000 acres of Rio Grande wetlands and offers easy RV access. We followed the auto tour route through a portion of the refuge, hopping out now and then for photos and wildlife spotting. We saw some ibis, egret and a variety of songbirds – plus a wily coyote, which not surprisingly turned up just as we were breaking out a snack.
Our byway tour behind us, we motored west on Highway 160, overnighting in South Fork, and continued on the next morning to Pagosa Springs. Soaking our weary bones in a hot spring is one of our favorite pastimes, so we couldn’t resist a stop at the Springs Resort, which just happens to sit atop the world’s largest and deepest hot mineral spring. It was a soothing sign off to a superlative southern Colorado getaway.